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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Bach & the early pianoforte"

Luca Guglielmi, clavichorda, fortepiano (Cristoforib, Silbermannc)

rec: Sept 18 - 20, 2013, Montaldo Torinese (TO), Chiesa Parrocchiale
Piano Classics - PCL 0062 (66'47")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Partita in c minor (BWV 997)c; Prelude in C (BWV 846,1)c; Prelude in c minor (BWV 999)c; Prelude in E flat (BWV 1010,1)c; Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998)c; Sarabande in g minor (BWV 995,4)c; Sonata II in a minor (BWV 1003)a; Toccata in c minor (BWV 911)b

In the early stages of historical performance practice one of the main issues was the interpretation of keyboard music of the baroque era. Especially the works of Bach were usually performed on the piano, and that was something which was heavily criticised by the representatives of 'authenticity'. Bach's keyboard works were written for the harpsichord and should be played on replicas of such instruments which have come down to us from the 17th and 18th centuries. In the second half of the 20th century much research has taken place and we now have a more complete and differentiated picture of the keyboard instruments in vogue in Bach's time. The harpsichord was one of the main keyboard instruments, but at home it was the clavichord that was most frequently played, especially as it was a relatively cheap instrument. We also have learnt that other instruments were used, albeit probably on a more modest scale. These include the lute-harpsichord (Lautenklavier), the tangent piano (Tangentenflügel) and - from the 1730s - the fortepiano. There is little controversy about Bach knowing and playing clavichord, lute-harpsichord and probably also the tangent piano, but the fortepiano is still the subject of much debate. The question is not whether he knew it, but how he assessed it and whether he really appreciated it.

In the booklet of the present disc several documents are quoted which examine Bach's involvement with the development of the fortepiano by Gottfried Silbermann who was especially famous as an organ builder. He was eager to show Bach his newly-developed instrument which was clearly inspired by Bartolomeo Cristofori. The latter had started as early as around 1700 to experiment with a new kind of instrument which would be able to play piano and forte. It has been suggested that Silbermann became acquainted with his invention through Italian composers visiting Germany. He was deeply disappointed and even offended when Bach criticised his new fortepiano. It was especially the weakness of the descant and the heavy action which he did not like. Silbermann gave it some thought and had to acknowledge that Bach was right. He spent time and effort in improving his concept and then asked Bach to give it a fresh appraisal. To his satisfaction Bach indicated approval.

Bach's own playing of the instrument is documented: he visited Dresden and was invited by Frederick the Great - the employer of his second son Carl Philipp Emanuel - to play at his court. The King asked him to improvise on a theme by himself and Bach did so on the fortepiano. This visit would result in the Musicalisches Opfer which includes the only keyboard pieces Bach may have conceived with the sound and possibilities of the fortepiano in mind. There has been much speculation about other music being performed at or even written for the fortepiano. It has been suggested that some of Bach's keyboard concertos could have been played on it. This could be supported by the announcement of a concert in Zimmermann's garden by Bach's Collegium Musicum in June 1733. It mentions "a new harpsichord, such as not had been heard before". It is also known that Bach's estate included a "veneered Claveçin" which seems to refer to a Silbermann fortepiano if this is the same instrument Bach's daughters sold in 1764, "the body and lid veneered", according to a newspaper advertisement.

Luca Guglielmi is not the first to play Bach's music on a fortepiano. If one wants to argue that some of his keyboard works can be played on it one needs to use the right instrument. A copy of a 1795 Walter is not appropriate and cannot result in a satisfying performance. Guglielmo plays the largest part of the programme on a copy of a Silbermann from 1749. One item is played on a copy of a 1726 Cristofori. Another issue is the selection of pieces. In this respect I find Guglielmo's choice less convincing. He plays some pieces which date from the 1730s and 40s, for instance the Prelude, fugue and allegro in E flat (BWV 998) which was written between 1740 and 1745. The Partita in c minor (BWV 997) is from the same time. However, he also plays pieces which were composed in the 1720s and even earlier. The Toccata in c minor (BWV 911) was written before 1714, and here the performance on a Silbermann fortepiano is historically implausible.

From a strictly musical point of view the later pieces come off best, but I find the earlier items not convincing. The problem is that the fortepiano represents a different aesthetic ideal. Several times Guglielmo makes use of the crescendo, for instance in the Prelude in C which opens the programme. However, this is part of the style which would develop in the 1740s, especially in Mannheim, but was not part of Bach's aesthetics. If one wants to play Bach on the fortepiano the interpretation should not fundamentally differ from that on the harpsichord. If Bach had written music specifically for the fortepiano, wouldn't he have written differently? The toccata is still rooted in baroque esthetics, with a differentation between good and bad notes, through dynamic differences. These are impossible on the harpsichord, but can be suggested with agogic means, such as a differentiation in length between notes. On the fortepiano one can create dynamic contrast but the music is the same and that means that here only single notes should be played forte or piano. The prelude is disappointing as it is played largely legato without dynamic accents.

The subject of this disc is Bach and the fortepiano. So why did Guglielmo play one item on the clavichord? It is known that Bach played his sonatas and partitas for violin solo on the keyboard, and that means that he improvised additional parts to the single line of the violin. Modern performers have done the same; Gustav Leonhardt was one of those who recorded some of these pieces in his own transcriptions for harpsichord. Considering that Bach played them in private the choice of a clavichord is very plausible, and the Sonata in a minor (BWV 1003) is beautifully played here. It is one of the nicest parts of this disc.

Don't misunderstand me: I admire Guglielmo's playing, here and in other recordings. It is just that I am not always satisfied with his interpretations on this disc as I have tried to explain. My main problem is the choice of repertoire. If it was his purpose to convince the listener that the use of the fortepiano is a legitimate option in the performance of Bach's keyboard music he should have been more critical in the selection of the pieces for this recording. The inclusion of pieces which were written well before Bach became acquainted with Silbermann's fortepiano is counterproductive.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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Luca Guglielmi

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